Stalemate: the long and the Short of it (3)

by Paul Lillebo
9/22/2014 – GM Nigel Short thinks we should abandon the "stupid rule" of stalemate, where the attacking side has completely immobilized the enemy but does not win. Paul Lillebo has been showing us that the stalemate rule adds a valuable dimension to chess, providing a last saving chance for the defending side, or a last stumbling block for the attacker. He shows us examples from top level play.

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Stalemate: the long and the Short of it – part 3

By H. Paul Lillebo


Part one of this article began with the English GM Nigel Short’s recommendation to change the scoring of stalemate from ½-½ to 1-0 in favor of the stalemating player. In other words, if you are stalemated you lose. We looked at potential rule changes that would make Nigel happy – his own preference was to cancel the rule that prevents the king from committing suicide (i.e., moving into check), since that would practically do away with stalemate. Reader reactions can be seen in the comments to the two previous parts. Most responses agreed with the thesis of this article: that such radical changes would not improve the game, though the opposite view was also heard.

Part two illustrated how the stalemate rule places an additional hurdle in the way of the attacking player, especially in the end game, while it can provide a last resource for the defender. As some readers have pointed out, an alternative to GM Short’s recommendation is to score the stalemate fractionally in favor of the stalemating player: Emanuel Lasker recommended 0.8-0.2, while others have favored other splits of the point, down to 0.6-0.4 for the stalemating player. A number of other well-known masters through the years have favored some split other than 0.5-0.5 for stalemate, for example Reti, Tartakover, Nimzovich, and Euwe. Such alternative scoring may be worth testing at the advanced amateur level, to see what difference they would make in the play of the game. I suspect that many games would last longer than today, since games that are agreed drawn without being played out would be played all the way to stalemate in order to get the extra fraction of a point. Of course, any division of the score other than 0.5-0.5 would eliminate the case where one side voluntarily forces his own stalemate, such as the following charmers.

End it!

A common use of stalemate is to put an end to a game that is dragging on with little chance of decision. In Korchnoi-Karpov, 1978 ( 5), the two antagonists were not on speaking terms, to put it mildly. Korchnoi, remembering an earlier game where Karpov had enjoyed stringing him along, played on and on in a dead drawn position.

[Event "World Championship 29th"] [Site "Baguio City"] [Date "1978.07.27"] [Round "5"] [White "Kortschnoj, Viktor"] [Black "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E42"] [WhiteElo "2665"] [BlackElo "2725"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/5K1k/8/8/p2B4/P7/8/8 w - - 0 116"] [PlyCount "17"] [EventDate "1978.07.18"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "32"] [EventCountry "PHI"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] {Karpov was inviting Korchnoi to stalemate him with Bg7, but Korchnoi declined and played on with} 116. Bb2 Kh6 117. Kg8 Kg6 118. Bg7 Kf5 119. Kf7 Kg5 120. Bb2 Kh6 121. Bc1+ Kh7 122. Bd2 Kh8 123. Bc3+ Kh7 {Now we have the same position as in the initial diagram, and Korchnoi finally consented to end the longest game in World Championship history with} 124. Bg7 {He made no secret of his delight at stalemating the champ.} 1/2-1/2

In Carlsen-Van Wely, Wijk aan Zee 2007, we saw the following:

[Event "Corus"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2007.01.26"] [Round "11"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Van Wely, Loek"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B90"] [WhiteElo "2690"] [BlackElo "2683"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/8/8/3k4/2b4r/5R2/3K4 b - - 0 67"] [PlyCount "85"] [EventDate "2007.01.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "13"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "19"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2007.03.30"] 67... Kd3 {Black's effort to win the R+B vs R ending had dragged on for a dozen moves when Magnus in effect offered a draw with} 68. Rd2+ {If Black takes the rook it's stalemate, but van Wely optimistically declined with} Kc4 69. Rf2 Re3 70. Re2 Rd3+ 71. Kc2 Bd4 72. Rd2 Ra3 73. Re2 Be3 74. Kd1 Ra1+ 75. Kc2 Kd4 76. Kb2 Ra8 77. Kb1 Rh8 78. Kc2 Rc8+ 79. Kb3 Kd3 80. Rb2 Bd2 81. Rb1 Ra8 82. Rb2 Ra1 83. Ra2 Rd1 84. Rc2 Ra1 {Now White tried again with} 85. Rc3+ { but Black declined with} Kd4 86. Rc4+ Kd5 87. Rg4 Be3 88. Kc2 Bd4 89. Kd3 Ra3+ 90. Ke2 Kc4 91. Rg2 Rh3 92. Kd2 Re3 93. Re2 Ra3 94. Kc2 Be3 95. Kb2 Kb4 96. Kb1 Bd4 97. Kc2 Kc4 98. Rd2 Be3 99. Re2 Rb3 100. Kd1 Kd3 101. Rd2+ {White tried the rook offer a third time with the same result.} Ke4 102. Kc2 Rb8 103. Rd3 Bd4 104. Rd2 Rc8+ 105. Kd1 Be3 106. Rc2 Rf8 107. Ke2 Kd4 108. Kd1 Kd3 109. Rd2+ {Magnus offered the rook in a fourth stalemate setup. Van Wely accepted the inevitable and played} Bxd2 {stalemate.} 1/2-1/2

Nigel Short made use of the stalemate to put an end to Short-Campora, 2001:

[Event "FIDE-Wch k.o."] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2001.11.28"] [Round "1.2"] [White "Short, Nigel D"] [Black "Campora, Daniel Hugo"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B07"] [WhiteElo "2675"] [BlackElo "2536"] [PlyCount "132"] [EventDate "2001.11.27"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventRounds "7"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2002.02.05"] 1. e4 d6 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. Nc3 c6 4. Bb3 e5 5. f4 Bg4 6. Nf3 exf4 7. d4 Nh5 8. O-O Be7 9. h3 Be6 10. d5 cxd5 11. Nd4 Nf6 12. Bxf4 O-O 13. exd5 Bd7 14. Nce2 Na6 15. c4 Nc5 16. Bc2 a5 17. Ng3 Qb6 18. Ndf5 Rae8 19. Kh2 Bxf5 20. Nxf5 Nfe4 21. Qf3 Bf6 22. Rae1 Re5 23. Bxe4 Nxe4 24. Nxd6 Nd2 25. Bxd2 Rxe1 26. Bxe1 Qxd6+ 27. Bg3 Be5 28. b3 f5 29. Bxe5 Qxe5+ 30. Qf4 Re8 31. d6 Qxf4+ 32. Rxf4 g6 33. Rd4 Kf7 34. Kg3 Ke6 35. Kf4 Kd7 36. Rd2 h6 37. c5 Re4+ 38. Kf3 Re5 39. Rc2 g5 40. a3 f4 41. Rc3 Re1 42. Kg4 Re2 43. g3 fxg3 44. Rxg3 Rc2 45. b4 axb4 46. axb4 Rc4+ 47. Kh5 Rxb4 48. Kxh6 b6 49. cxb6 Rxb6 50. Rxg5 Rb4 51. Rg4 Rb3 52. h4 Kxd6 53. Re4 Rg3 54. h5 Kd7 55. Re5 Kd6 56. Re1 Kd7 57. Kh7 Rg2 58. h6 Rg3 59. Kh8 Rg2 60. Ra1 Ke7 61. Ra7+ Kf6 62. Rg7 Ra2 63. h7 Ra8+ 64. Rg8 Ra7 {After fruitless rook maneuvers trying to win a drawn ending, Short played} 65. Rb8 Kf7 {Now White sac'd his rook with} 66. Rb7+ Rxb7 {stalemate. Hm, who gets the full point here?} 1/2-1/2

In the FIDE championship tournament in Mexico City, 2007, the game Anand-Kramnik reached a critical position on move 59:

[Event "World Championship"] [Site "Mexico City"] [Date "2007.09.15"] [Round "3"] [White "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Black "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C42"] [WhiteElo "2792"] [BlackElo "2769"] [PlyCount "130"] [EventDate "2007.09.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "14"] [EventCountry "MEX"] [EventCategory "21"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2007.10.02"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 d5 6. Bd3 Nc6 7. O-O Be7 8. c4 Nb4 9. Be2 O-O 10. Nc3 Bf5 11. a3 Nxc3 12. bxc3 Nc6 13. Re1 Re8 14. cxd5 Qxd5 15. Bf4 Rac8 16. Qa4 Bd7 17. Qc2 Qf5 18. Qxf5 Bxf5 19. Bb5 Bd7 20. d5 Ne5 21. Bxd7 Nxd7 22. Bxc7 Rxc7 23. d6 Rxc3 24. dxe7 f6 25. Rad1 Rc7 26. Nd4 Ne5 27. f4 Nc6 28. Nxc6 bxc6 29. Rd6 c5 30. Ree6 c4 31. Rc6 Rexe7 32. Rxc4 Rxc4 33. Rxe7 Ra4 34. Rb7 h6 35. f5 Rxa3 36. Kf2 h5 37. g3 a5 38. Ra7 a4 39. h4 Ra2+ 40. Kf3 a3 41. Ke3 Ra1 42. Kf2 Kf8 43. Kg2 a2 44. Kh2 Ke8 45. Kg2 Kd8 46. Kh2 Kc8 47. Kg2 Kb8 48. Ra3 Kb7 49. Ra4 Kb6 50. Ra8 Kc5 51. Ra7 Kd5 52. Ra4 Ke5 53. Ra5+ Ke4 54. Kh2 Kf3 55. Ra3+ Kf2 56. Ra4 Kf1 57. Kh1 Ke1 58. Kg2 Kd1 59. Ra7 Rc1 { With this move Black abandons his efforts to convert the a-pawn.} 60. Rxa2 Rc2+ 61. Rxc2 Kxc2 62. Kf3 Kd3 {The position should be drawn, but with enough possible missteps for either player to lose. Anand elected to take advantage of the stalemate rule to get the draw safely in hand.} 63. g4 hxg4+ 64. Kxg4 Ke4 65. Kh5 {The only move that avoids losing!} Kxf5 {and the position is a stalemate draw - a fair conclusion!} 1/2-1/2

In the 1999 FIDE knock-out championship, the second-round game Nielsen-J.Polgar led to the following position:

[Event "FIDE-Wch k.o."] [Site "Las Vegas"] [Date "1999.08.04"] [Round "2.2"] [White "Nielsen, Peter Heine"] [Black "Polgar, Judit"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E05"] [WhiteElo "2560"] [BlackElo "2671"] [PlyCount "115"] [EventDate "1999.07.31"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventRounds "7"] [EventCountry "USA"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.10.01"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O dxc4 7. Qc2 a6 8. Qxc4 b5 9. Qc2 Bb7 10. Bd2 Be4 11. Qc1 Nbd7 12. Ba5 Rc8 13. Nbd2 Ba8 14. Qc2 Nb8 15. Nb3 Be4 16. Qd2 Nc6 17. Rfc1 b4 18. Rxc6 Bxc6 19. Bxb4 Bxb4 20. Qxb4 Qd6 21. Qa5 Bd5 22. Rc1 Qb6 23. Nfd2 Rb8 24. Qc5 a5 25. Bxd5 exd5 26. a4 Qb4 27. Qxc7 Qxa4 28. Qc2 Qb5 29. e3 h6 30. Qd1 Rfc8 31. Ra1 a4 32. Nc5 Qxb2 33. Nxa4 Qc2 34. Nc5 Rb2 35. Qxc2 Rxc2 36. Ndb3 Rb8 37. h3 Rb2 38. Nc1 Rb1 39. Rxb1 Rxb1 40. N5d3 Ne4 41. Kg2 Kf8 42. Ne2 g5 43. g4 Ke7 44. Ng3 Nxg3 45. Kxg3 Rb3 46. Ne5 Rc3 47. h4 Ke6 48. hxg5 hxg5 49. Nf3 f6 50. Nh2 Rc8 51. Nf1 f5 52. gxf5+ Kxf5 53. Nh2 Rc1 54. f3 Ra1 55. Ng4 {Polgar, who had won the first game against Nielsen, only needed a draw to move on. She played the neat} Rg1+ {White's moves are forced:} 56. Kf2 Rxg4 57. fxg4+ Ke4 {Judit has stalemated herself. White has no choice but go go along with} 58. Ke2 {Stalemate. White had secured the draw and advanced in the knock-out championship.} 1/2-1/2

In these examples, the players resorted to stalemate for convenience. The positions were drawn, and it would make no sense to give a full point to either player.


It has struck me, in finding examples for this article, how many master players will spend much time and many moves uselessly nursing a single pawn forward against the opposing lone king, not giving up until the inevitable stalemate on the last rank. Perhaps they are afflicted with a sense of injustice at not winning a game where they do, after all, stand better. Or perhaps it’s a desire to demonstrate their superiority just a little longer before granting their inferior that half point.


At the FIDE knock-out championship in 1999, for example, GM Tony Miles as Black spent 16 moves from the position on the left, enjoying his pawn superiority over Michal Krasenkow, before finally agreeing to the obvious stalemate on the first rank: 103...e5+ 104. Ke4 Ke6 105. Ke3 Kd5 106. Kd3 e4+ 107. Ke3 Ke5 108. Ke2 Kf4 109. Kf2 e3+ 110. Ke2 Ke4 111. Ke1 Kf3 112. Kf1 Kf4 113. Ke2 Ke4 114. Ke1 Ke5 115. Ke2 Kd4 116. Ke1 Kd3 117. Kd1 e2+ 118. Ke1 Ke3 1/2-1/2 to finish with the stalemate shown in the diagram on the right. Etienne Bacrot did the same to Humpy Koneru in Corus (B), 2008, and Nigel Short to Ivan Sokolov at the 2008 Staunton Memorial. And many more. Apparently it just feels good to stalemate!

So let’s finish with the hilarious ending of Ponomariov-Ivanchuk in the 2008 Tal Memorial:

[Event "Moscow Tal Memorial 3rd"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2008.08.26"] [Round "8"] [White "Ponomariov, Ruslan"] [Black "Ivanchuk, Vassily"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C93"] [WhiteElo "2718"] [BlackElo "2781"] [PlyCount "177"] [EventDate "2008.08.18"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "20"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2008.10.01"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. c3 d6 9. h3 Bb7 10. d4 Re8 11. Ng5 Rf8 12. Nf3 Re8 13. Nbd2 Bf8 14. a3 h6 15. Bc2 Nb8 16. b4 Nbd7 17. Bb2 c6 18. Rc1 Rc8 19. Bb1 g6 20. Qb3 c5 21. dxc5 dxc5 22. c4 Qe7 23. bxc5 Qxc5 24. cxb5 Qxb5 25. Rxc8 Bxc8 26. Qxb5 axb5 27. Rc1 Bb7 28. Rc7 Ba8 29. Bd3 Bd6 30. Ra7 Bc6 31. Nb3 Bb8 32. Ra6 Bxe4 33. Bxb5 Bd5 34. Na5 Bc7 35. Ra7 Bb6 36. Bxd7 Re7 37. Ra6 Nxd7 38. Nxe5 Bc7 39. Ra7 Nxe5 40. Bxe5 Rxe5 41. Rxc7 Rg5 42. g4 Re5 43. Rc1 Re4 44. Rd1 Be6 45. Nc6 Ra4 46. Rd3 Kg7 47. f3 h5 48. Kf2 Kf6 49. Nd4 Bc4 50. Re3 Ba6 51. Nc6 Bc8 52. Nb4 Ra5 53. Kg3 hxg4 54. hxg4 Be6 55. Rc3 Ra8 56. Nd3 Ra5 57. Kf4 g5+ 58. Ke3 Ke7 59. Nc5 f5 60. Kd4 fxg4 61. Re3 gxf3 62. Rxe6+ Kf7 63. Re3 g4 64. Ne4 Kg6 65. Rc3 Kf5 66. Ke3 Re5 67. Rc5 Rxc5 68. Nxc5 Ke5 69. Ne4 Kd5 70. Kd3 Ke5 71. Ke3 Kd5 72. Nd2 Kc5 73. Kd3 Kb5 74. Kc3 Ka4 75. Kb2 g3 76. Nxf3 g2 77. Ka2 Ka5 ({Now if Black queens his pawn} 77... g1=Q $4 78. Nxg1 {and White wins.}) 78. Kb3 Kb5 79. a4+ Ka5 80. Ka3 {A six-halfmove stairstep pattern that now gets repeated twice more.} Ka6 81. Kb4 Kb6 82. a5+ Ka6 83. Ka4 Ka7 84. Kb5 Kb7 85. a6+ Ka7 86. Ka5 Kb8 87. Kb6 Ka8 88. a7 {Pono knows what's coming.} g1=B+ 89. Nxg1 {stalemate. Perhaps some Ukrainian cooperation, but neatly done, and very funny!} 1/2-1/2

How many times have we seen a runner relax in the final three meters of a race, already celebrating the win, only to be passed at the tape? Or a footballer miss an empty goal from five meters because it was too easy? Should we just give the runner the win, or the footballer the goal, once they have it “in the bag”? Is it enough to just have an obvious win, or should the athlete still be required to pass the final test? To make it over the last hurdle, to break the tape, to actually put the ball in the net?

The “goal” in chess is checkmate; if you fail to reach it you don’t get the win. It’s quite simple, and we’ve provided for the case where neither player reaches the goal by the invention of the split point: the draw or remis. Instead of being a dumb rule, as some claim, the stalemate draw is quite ingenious. It’s like a final hurdle. It leaves the possibility of stumbling, as well as of rescue in positions that would otherwise be onesided. It requires thought and alertness by both players right to the end of the game. In fact it gives us meaningful end games that otherwise would be meaningless.

In the famous words of the inimitable New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “It ain't over 'til it's over.” And a game of chess ain’t won ‘til checkmate.

Paul Lillebo, life-long chess lover, is a retired biologist and earlier U.S. naval aviator with a recent master's degree in early American history, who divides his time between Oslo, Norway and North Carolina, USA.


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